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01-14-14: Fifth graders learn social skills through ballroom dance
01-14-14: Fifth graders learn social skills through ballroom dance
Posted on 01/14/2014

Like most kids his age, Ethan Johnston likes to play soccer, watch football on TV, hang out with friends, and play video games.


And ballroom dance.


Ethan is one of 65 fifth graders who learned how to tango, waltz, swing, and do a series of other fancy footwork as part of a new “Dancing Classrooms” program this fall at Wildwood Elementary School.Image


The program culminated during a schoolwide assembly in late November where students circled the gym, arm-in-arm with their partners, to show off what they had learned. They performed again in the evening for their parents and other family members.


Several of the students, including 10-year old Johnston, advanced to a regional Dancing Classrooms competition on December 6 at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way.


 Johnston and his partner, Hailee Campbell, danced the merengue.


“I love the merengue,” said Johnston, who had never tried ballroom dancing until this year. “I like the style of music, the rhythm, and the way my feet move.”


The ballroom dance classes are held during the regular school day and led by trained Dancing Classrooms Teaching Artists. The curriculum-based instruction is held for 45 minutes twice a week for 10 weeks.


While dance appears to be the program’s focus, it is actually secondary to the primary goal of teaching students social and life skills, said Wildwood Elementary Principal Almai Malit-Idler. 

ImageDance is a tool, she said, for getting children to break down social barriers, build self-confidence, work as a team, and, above all, learn to treat everyone with respect.


The program is presented at an age when it can be awkward for some children to talk to the opposite sex, much less hold hands and twirl around the room with different partners.


The change in their comfort level was noticeable from week to week, Malit-Idler said.


The fifth graders learned six ballroom dances — merengue, waltz, tango, foxtrot, rumba, and swing — and upbeat group dances including the heel-toe polka, stomp, and Cha Cha Slide.


“I saw it as a community-building activity at our school,” Malit-Idler said. “It may be the only opportunity that some of these kids have to experience something like this.”


By the end of the 10 weeks, boys appeared more comfortable escorting girls arm-in-arm from their classrooms to the gym. Most students had also stopped covering their hands with sweatshirt sleeves during partner dances.


“They go from being boys and girls to being ladies and gentlemen,” said Heather Longhurst, site director of Dancing Classrooms and executive director of Pacific Ballroom Dance.


At the culminating performance, many of the girls traded tennis shoes and jeans for heels and elegant sparkly dresses, while boys sported dress shirts and ties.


In addition to dancing, several students read letters aloud that they had written to Teaching Artists Beth Dolan and Christine France explaining how they felt at the start and again at the end of the program.


At the start of the 10 weeks, fifth grader Liz Cordes wrote that she was “excited, but really nervous.”


“I was excited because I thought it would be fun to learn some of the dances I watch on ‘Dancing With The Stars,’” she wrote. “I was nervous because I thought I might forget some steps and might be laughed at. Now that Dancing Classrooms has started, I’m not at all nervous.”Image


Classmate Dakota Williams wrote in his final letter that he feels more comfortable dancing in front of a crowd — something he was nervous about at the start.


Fifth-grade teachers Mark Aguilar and Janet Wolcott, who danced with students throughout the 10 weeks of practice, praised the Dancing Classrooms curriculum and its effect on students.


“Dancing classrooms provided a great opportunity for students to learn and work together as teammates, and more importantly, they had fun doing it,” Aguilar said.


Wolcott added, “They have learned to be respectful and polite with each other, and the instruction is very developmentally appropriate. All of the steps make sense.”


Wildwood Elementary is the first school in Puyallup to offer the artist-in-residence program. The program was funded through a combination of a Dancing Classrooms grant and local school fundraisers.


Johnston’s mother, Gillian, said her son thoroughly enjoyed the program. Passionate herself about dance, she said she is happy the school offered elementary students such a unique opportunity.


“They are doing something they wouldn’t normally do as a 10-year-old,” she said.